Road Trip Visits Mark Twain in MO

Hannibal MO

See where The Great American Road Trip 7-2010 has been in a larger map.

The Great American Road Trip

Destination: Missouri

Book: Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, in The Library of America Edition

Mark Twain, who captured America like no other American writer, wandered the globe and lived abroad nearly as many years as he lived in the United States. As a matter of fact many of his most American books were penned while he luxuriated in villas in the Italian countryside.

He wrote follow-ups to his popular Tom Sawyer novel from a villa near Florence while fiddling with what was to become the final of the four masterworks of the Mississippi River, sometimes known as “The Tragedie” of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Of course I could have chosen to talk about his memoir of Life on the Mississippi or Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, all memoirs to some extent of his years in Hannibal, Missouri, but being a contrarian, I wanted to read the lesser-known book as a salute to the state of Missouri.

Pudd’nhead Wilson made quite a journey itself, starting as a farce about conjoined twins, based on a pair of Italian sideshow noblemen that drew crowds in the nineteenth century Europe. However, by the time Twain finished his story, his interest had drawn elsewhere, the story had perhaps been influenced by his wife’s influence, and the twins, still noble, were no longer conjoined. The subsequent editing tends to rather sloppy and confusingly show glimpses of the previous “Siamese” twins.

As usual, Twain presents the accents and mores of his home town and the state of Missouri faithfully, although he was living in 1893 in a villa in Florence and had been for many years when he wrote this book. This is a book of memory. He is recalling the bad old days (1830) when a person like Roxy, the story’s main character, could be sold “down the river” because she is 1/16 black. “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro.”

Even This long after the Civil War, such a strong condemnation of slavery sold more copies of Twain’s books in the north than in the South. He leaves no doubts of his feelings, not only about slavery but about the damage the aristocracy of the South wrought on the white population as well as the black.

Echoing his earlier story, The Prince and the Pauper, he switches two children but in this case, one is white and one is black (but in this case 1/32nd black, which serves just as well) and proving Twain is always up to date, he uses the latest science, in this case finger printing, to solve both a murder and the swapped-at-birth cases.

Despite the sloppiness in converting the Italian twins from conjoined to merely noble, this story deserves more attention than it generally gets.  For one thing, Twain has created a really interesting female character for a change in Roxy. And if his cynicism towards American’s racial attitudes began to emerge in Huck Finn, it came to full flame in Pudd’nhead Wilson. See how he weaves a detective story, social satire, Americana and vintage Twain into a story that makes a good addition to the traveler’s road trip history library.

What is your favorite Mark Twain novel? Why do you think this one never gained the popularity of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “Road Trip Visits Mark Twain in MO

  1. My favourites are his travel accounts, though I’ve not read Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain’s face is so identifiable I love it that his image is sufficient for everyone to know who he is like your photo of Hannibal, Missouri.

  2. Pudd’nhead Wilson is my favorite Twain novel, always has been. I think it’s a devastatingly acute book; the ending is killer. I recommend reading the companion short story Those Extraordinary Twins and Twain’s very funny introduction to it as well.

  3. Actually, Pudd’nhead Wilson is one of our favorites. We got ‘hooked on Twain’ after reading his “Innocents Abroad” the account of his 1867 trip to Europe and the Holy Land onboard a first-class steamer. His observations about fellow passengers and places visited had us laughing out loud. We then started his novels and found Pudd’nhead — a very good read.

    You’ve sparked an idea – I’ll be taking “Innocents Abroad” with us on our upcoming Black Sea cruise – it will be fun to compare Twain’s observations to our own.

  4. I think that some of Twain’s later books were too “serious” – or perhaps too cynical and bitter- to be accepted by a public that looked on him as a humorist. The man that corrupted Hadleyburg for example, and The Mysterious Stranger are good stories with dark commentary about the human soul. And how about his novel about Joan of Arc? I enjoy all of his works but Tom Sawyer makes me laugh, while The Mysterious Stranger makes me sad.

    My Favorite work of Twain’s is the first half of life on the Mississippi.

    1. Interestingly, as his latest biographer points out, Twain struggled all his life to be taken seriously. But most people, like you, preferred Tom Sawyer over his own favorite, Joan of Arc.

  5. Love this website. Every entry makes me pick up a book and go someone, if only in my imagination. Keep up the great work!

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